Smoke 'Em if You Got 'Em: How to Brew Lapsang Souchong Tea
If you thought cilantro was divisive, enter Lapsang Souchong, a smoky contender for many a tea-based arguing point. This aggressively aromatic, forcefully flavored black tea gets its character from real smoke—unless you've mistakenly bought something seasoned with imitation smoke flavor&mdasy;and elicits quite a complex set of flavors (and sometimes emotions!)
Originally hailing from the Wuyi mountains of Fujian province, China, this twisted-leaf black tea, made from leaves a few steps down from the bud, gets its unusual character from an intermediate stage in its production: instead of withering to dry through natural drying processes (e.g., laid out in the air), it is dried essentially by campfire. This wood-fired addition to the production process (which comes before the pan-firing that makes it a black tea) is traditionally done over pine wood, lending Lapsang Souchong its particular taste—though you'll taste more smoke than pine. (Smoked teas from Taiwan are known as Tarry Souchong, and are thought to have more pungent aroma and flavor.)
As with many happy accidents, a legend accompanies this tea. It is said that the process originated in the Qing Dynasty, when a troop of soldiers passed through a village on their journey, lodging for the night in a tea factory. The inconvenience of their unexpected guests slowed down the tea they were processing—meaning that unless they sped the process somehow, it would not get to market in time to sell. They lit fires of pine to rush the tea along, and in turn infused the leaves with the distinctive smokiness that makes this tea so unusual.
How to Brew
Lapsang Souchong is brewed similarly to any black tea, though you'll find experimenting with your own parameters can really bring out the flavors you like best—more smoke, less smoke, more sweetness, more floral and fruit notes.
You can use a gaiwan (though remember—the temperatures required for black tea will make your gaiwan very hot to handle), which will also work handily for reinfusing.
Start with a small dose of Lapsang Souchong—5 grams, for a 6 ounce Gaiwan or cup-top infuser
Bring your good quality water (filtered, spring, but not distilled) to a boil. You'll pour the water off right after the boil, so have your tea ready.
Steep time will dramatically affect your results with Lapsang Souchong, so adjust your length of steeping—let's start with a 2.5 minute infusion—to taste. Very long steeping times will make the tea bitter, more astringent and with less subtle range, whereas shorter times will find less balance and flavor in the cup.
Once steeped, you'll find its beguilingly smoky aroma is just the lead off to a set of flavors—floral, sweet, clovey, orange-vanilla, and sometimes veering towards birch-beer—that work in harmony with the tea's rich, savorylike smoke. The lush, red-to-ambery-brown hue in the cup doesn't even begin to hint at the confusion your palate is in for. It is possible to reinfuse Lapsang Souchong at least once, though you may find the flavors degrade, rather than unfold, if you try to push your leaves too far. (You may enjoy it in milk, but for some, the smoke-and-milk combo may be just a bit strange.)
As you experiment, continue to adjust your time and dose to attenuate the smokiness, and elevate different flavors that you're finding in the cup. Many enjoy cooking with Lapsang Souchong, either as part of a dry rub, or brewed and incorporated as a sauce...or, just as in brewing it to drink...wherever the leaves guide you.